Why I admire Ansel Adams
In 1997 I was given my first SLR camera, a Minolta XG-M 35mm with a 50mm lens and a camera bag. At the time, my mother was getting Outdoor Photographer magazine with a subscription and I would pour over the pages when it arrived at our stoop. I was realizing little by little that photography could be an outlet for creative expression and as a result of this I was beginning to develop opinions of professional photographers, based on the emotions I experienced when viewing their work. I have always believed that you could tell a good deal of a person by simply observing that which gives them the greatest pleasure. Private lives aside, the greatest measure of a photographer is the craft over which they labor and toil and so greatly enjoy.
My first mentor of the photographic mind was Galen Avery Rowell. As a columnist for OP (the least among his awesome accomplishments which include Everest, K2, Fitz Roy and National Geographic) he was a photographic influence to which I was exposed (no pun intended) early and often. It’s easy to be impressed by a technically perfect image made by an individual who was precariously perched on a half-inch crack, suspended as if in midair by chalky fingertips, shoe leather and sheer willpower halfway up a 4,000 foot sheer granite face with only a single belay line staving off certain death from a precipitous plunge. A quote comes to mind. ‘The best reason to climb a mountain is because it’s there.’ The only reason to brilliantly capture such fleeting Zen-like moments while in the midst of such arduous pursuits is an appreciation for life and being at one with your surroundings. (However, a smattering of insanity must be accounted for as well.)
As I learned more and my photographic horizons began to expand I came to notice the works of other photographers and some of those came to the foreground of my awareness, including Edward Weston, Dewitt Jones, Alfred Stieglitz, William Neill and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But I have not been moved, touched or challenged so much by any other as I have been by the legacy of Ansel Adams. That master of the Sierra (not Sierras, AA would roll in his grave at that insult), that King of the Yosemite, with his broken nose, cowboy hat and modified Woody wagon. When I first saw a copy of his print ‘Winter Storm’ I was knocked over by the detail and emotion that played out before me. But it was not until after delving into Adams’ literature that I realized that the masterpiece before me was more than just placement of the camera and composition before the click of the shutter. It was also his knowledge of his subject, his mastery over light, his meticulous attention to detail in the darkroom, his visionary seeing that brought about his beautiful work of art. I had in my possession an example of true perfection.
After reading his books, his autobiography, his articles and anything I could find that revealed a portion of the mind of this great photographer I find that not only can I learn from him but that as a photographer and as a man I relate to him. Though passed from this world some twenty-three years ago his body of work, both photography and literature, continue to move, challenge and inspire me. I had never had the privilege to meet this legend, but through his legacy to photography I know him: his aspirations, his frustrations, his despair and his joy.
However, through the further expansion of my photographic horizons I get the feeling that the name of Ansel Adams is a sort of dirty word among many of the new breed of photographers today. I continually find the need to defend my admiration of Adams and his work. It is as if others have the viewpoint that to admit to being a follower of Adams’ techniques and an admirer of his life’s labor amounts to no better than dropping a name to impress others with your choice of association. And with the advent of digital technology and the attempt to put an automatic camera into every hand in the world, the pervading opinion seems to be that Adams is an outmoded, archaic, prehistoric savant who’s contributions to our craft have passed their time and are now, somehow, unnecessary and superfluous. ‘Why take the time to learn what I can now just go out and do anyway?’ I know that digital photography is the next and logical step up from film photography. It enables the masses to bypass the developing and printing processes of yore in favor of near instant gratification. It’s what the people crave and I cannot fault them for that. After all, it holds appeal for me as well. But when people sacrifice knowledge and persistence for convenience and simplicity, something invariably suffers. In my humble opinion this is where photography is right now. As for me, I cannot turn my back on a thing that I love, that is such a part of me. I find peace in manually calculating exposure with an off-camera meter. I love anticipating the right moment rather than always bracketing and praying for rain. I love getting an exposure right at the camera and making adjustments later rather than making the changes because I could not get it right the first time.
I am a disciple of Ansel Easton Adams because he challenges me. Not to mimic his images but to find my own vision. Because he inspires me to be prepared, to not trip the shutter until I have exhausted all of the controls at my command to make the best exposure I can and not to fly be the seat of my pants. Because in him I find a fellow photographer and intellect, a kindred spirit, not an idol to be worshipped and imitated. Bacuase I strive to mirror his hard work and dedication, not his classic view of the Grand Tetons behind the Snake River. Because I share his need to pass on any and all knowledge that I may have that can help another fellow photographer to get it and I am willing to try new things and ways that had not previously occurred to me. Because I share his ethic and diligence. Beacuse I strive to be my own photographer, using him as a springboard and guide, not as an identity to don when it suits me. His legacy is not a goal for what to become, but rather a benchmark of what is possible.
So when I say I like Ansel Adams it’s not hero worship. It is respect and an affirmation of that which the greatest photographer of the twentieth century stands for and means to me in terms of self-education, preparedness and vision in my chosen craft.
Christopher A. Walrath
November 9th, 2007
Last edited by Christopher Walrath; 11-13-2007 at 07:44 PM. Click to view previous post history.
Thank you for your reply. I see so many comments along the lines of those I've outlined and guess I've been looking for a solid way to refute them. They seem to be part of the basic defense used by digital people to "justify" their "craft." They seem to be saying in the same breath that Adams would have been a fan of Photoshop, as inane a comment as I can imagine.
Edited to add: I see most of the comments I mention on the popular Nikonians.org site which of course is dedicated primarily to "digital photography" (something of an oxymoron).
Last edited by ehparis; 01-15-2008 at 03:17 PM. Click to view previous post history.
But see, I am gonna risk the wrath of the Mods on this one, but we all scorn digital photography as not being true photography. Just as photography could not be an art to be compared with painting when it was new in the 19th century. The opinions of people change with time. I WILL ALWAYS PREFER FILM PHOTOGRAPHY. Digital photography doesn't take cool stuff like acid to coax a latent image into being, however to those that dedicate as much of themselves as did the film-using greats, they are true photographers in their own right. They use their own medium, their own canvas, their own method of capture. They use silicon instead of silver. Their process is electronic instead of chemical. It is true that digital photography can be made to be all about instant gratification and putting a quicky camera into every hand in the world, it has been taken to the masses, a perversion of the hallowed realms of film photography. But, after all, isn't that what was said about 35mm when the first Zeiss's and Kodaks and Leicas started popping up on the scene? The large format 'purists' howled then and the ringing continues even today. It is merely aimed in a somewhat different direction.
It is the creative eye behind the viewfinder/groundglass that makes photography an art and a craft, regardless of the mode applied. All an artist can do is to be true to his or her own vision and let history decide if the body of work is important or otherwise.
Just thoughts. Thank you for the kind words and the reads, folks. I truly appreciate it.
Last edited by Christopher Walrath; 01-22-2008 at 09:21 PM. Click to view previous post history.
I know it's anathema here but I tend to agree with you. In fact, in his book "40 Examples" Adams mentioned that he indicated his excitement for the future "when we shall be capturing images electronically." Digital, (sorry - d@#$*&l) has its uses - particularly in some commercial photography for which it excels - and I use it in those situations. However, for the more evocative work I admire just doesn't match up in digital - particularly in B&W. About a year ago I printed a 16x20 from a 4x5. I then had that neg drum scanned and a 16x20 gyclee print done from it. Matted and framed it like the real one and hung them side by side. EVERYONE (that saw it at least!) preferred the silver image. There was no area in the digital print where I could say I saw more rendered detail but there was a depth and a presence in the silver print that the digital just didn't have.
I have decided that I'll switch to digital the day a film photographer tells me: "See, it's as good as digital!" I suspect the temperature will never drop that low however!
A definition of "God" from the Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary:God-a person or thing of supreme value.
Originally Posted by TheFlyingCamera
As stated before AA is a God to photograph. His value to the past, present, and future of photography is so large that it can't be quantitatively measured. There have been many great great photographers and there will be many many more great photographers to come--but none will have the influence and add to the knowledge base like AA did. IMO
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I agree. He gave so much to all of us that we could never repay him, even given the chance. Thanks for the reads again. Have a great day, all.
I agree. I'm not a huge fan of his work, but I cannot deny his technical skill and impact on 20th Century photogrpahy. But, I do tire of the endless digital imatators (who come nowhere close to his level) that parade their latest "Ansel Adams'" pic from their summer vacation in Yosemite on various photo UG's.
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks
Amen to that!
I happen to like many of AA's photographs - but certainly not not all. I do admire his commitment to technique, however; and there is no doubt that he has inspired many photographers. Adams himself however, points out that his technical approach should be taken as a point of departure for the serious photographer. Dogmatism is a tough to take - any any form. I call these individuals "Photo Phundamentalists"
"Why is there always a better way?"
There are some of his images that I don't recall viewing even though I know I did because I have read his books over and over. They just don't strike me. I got 400 Images for Christmas and there is one image in the 40's section of a meadow below Mt Ansel Adams (fitting) that is the most impactful new image (to me) that I have seen from AA's vaults in a long time. Amazing. His work can still move me to building a cabin in the wilderness of my mind just to be there. (You all know what I mean.)
Thanks for the words and the reads everybody.
It's been a month since there have been any new comments on the article so I would like to wrap it up a bit.
First, I really appreciate all of the comments and reads. I never dreamed that this article would be read by nearly 20 percent of those who have ever even been a member here at APUG. And even though most didn't take the time to respond, which was by no means compulsary, I would like to think that I have struck a common chord with most of my fellow photographers here at APUG.
Secondly, a great deal has been mentioned of other historically great photographers. For instance, Minor White, John Sexton, Galen Rowell, and others. Consider this a tribute to all of our photographic heroes, the icons that have gone before EACH AND EVERY ONE OF US. Without their pioneering we would all be in a drastically different place creatively.
Thirdly, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sean. This forum is the greatest opportunity for we film photographers to air our concerns, bond with fellow craftsmen and display our knowledge to the benefit of they who will follow US.
It has been my privelege and honor to be a part of such a great and grand undertaking, this users group for analog photographers. I have made many new friends here and hope to develop (no pun intended) many more.
Thank you all.
Christopher A. Walrath
(1.) Christopher, thank you for showing us something of your mind and thinking. I also applaud your writing.
(2.) It is interesting and surprising to find Galen Rowell mentioned here also. I did not expect that from the title. I remember my initial reaction of; "Huh?" that slowly developed from shock into disbelief and then a feeling of loss when I heard that Galen and Barbara Rowell had died in a chartered airplane while approaching the Bishop field after a vacation cruise up to Alaska. Ironically, they were passengers; Barbara was not the pilot that night. Climbing had lost a friend who could show the world why we climb.
Last edited by Ralph Javins; 07-21-2008 at 12:31 AM. Click to view previous post history.
Reason: Airport name wrong